In this unashamedly revisionist account, the American academic historian Sean McMeekin asserts that we have been looking at the war through the wrong end of the telescope. The tyrant who, while not launching the conflict, took advantage of the circumstances that it presented at every turn, and certainly ended up by winning it, he says, was the man he constantly calls the Vozhd (the boss): Joseph Stalin.
The volume is impressive even by the standard of histories of the second world war. It is more than 800 pages long, including a 20-page list of archival collections and files consulted. The list of source publications and literature is even longer, while the notes, often limited to citations, occupy more than 90 pages. The book is well researched and very well written. It puts forward new ideas and revives some old ones to challenge current mainstream interpretations of the conflict... To cite McMeekin, Stalin’s War is not “a comprehensive history of the second world war”. But the author is also right to suggest that his is a new look at the conflict, which poses new questions and, one should add, provides new and often unexpected answers to the old ones.
That is indeed provocative, but strangely none of it is new. The isolationist strand of the American right from America First through McCarthyites to Pat Buchanan has always believed this version of the Second World War. Since the late 1930s their publications and their partisans have argued that this war against the Nazis was the wrong war, fought in effect to help atheist communism, and prosecuted by a president who was both unscrupulous and naive. When he wasn’t being just a dupe of the communists. And at every stage they have lost this argument. McMeekin has just reopened it.
McMeekin is right that we have for too long cast the second world war as the good one. His book will, as he must hope, make us re-evaluate the war and its consequences. A warning, though. In looking at the decisions and compromises with Stalin made by the British and Americans, let us remember what they faced and consider the possible and not, like the movie, the fantastic.
Challenging as all this is, I find it overwhelmingly unconvincing. Most readers will find the idea of dealing with Hitler a moral obscenity, although McMeekin is right to point out that Stalin was little better. However, some of his claims are little more than fantasy: the idea of an Allied intervention in Finland is surely no more realistic than a Churchill-Hitler rapprochement after Hess’s flight to Scotland. And although making Stalin the centre of the story is an intriguing exercise, McMeekin’s approach is far too one-sided to be satisfying. He seems too keen to shock, to say the unsayable. As a result, his book reads less like a serious scholarly history than a provocative thought experiment that has got completely out of hand.